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Augustus Hill Garland

Augustus Hill Garland served as attorney general of the United States from 1885 to 1889 under President GROVER CLEVELAND.

Garland was born June 11, 1832, in Tipton County, Tennessee. His parents, Rufus K. Garland and Barbara Hill Garland, settled in Hempstead County, Arkansas, when he was an infant. Garland was educated at local schools in Hempstead County, and at St. Joseph's College, in Bardstown, Kentucky. He graduated from St. Joseph's in 1851 and was admitted to the bar in 1853. Garland's first practice was established in Washington, Arkansas. He eventually moved to Little Rock, Arkansas, where he earned a reputation as one of the best lawyers in the South. He married Sarah Virginia Sanders in Little Rock. She died early in their marriage, and Garland's mother ran his household for most of his life.

At the outbreak of the Civil War, Garland opposed the secession of Arkansas, but he eventually supported his state when the ordinance of secession was passed. He was elected to the Confederate provisional congress, in Montgomery, Alabama, and to the first and second Confederate congresses, in Richmond.

In an effort to unify the North and South after the war, President ANDREW JOHNSON granted a full pardon to Garland (and others) for wartime service to the Confederacy. The president's actions were not widely supported; Congress enacted a number of laws that continued to punish the pardoned Southerners for their wartime allegiances by restricting their ability to participate in their former businesses or professions. Two restrictions, enacted in 1865, required attorneys to swear a test (loyalty) oath affirming that they had not participated in the rebellion, as a condition for appearing before the U.S. Supreme Court, the district and circuit courts, and the Court of Claims (13 Stat. 424). Attorneys who could not take the oath were denied the right to appear before the high courts—and thereby prevented from practicing law.

Garland challenged the law in 1867. He argued that the law was unconstitutional, and that even if the law were constitutional, he would be released from compliance with its provisions by his presidential pardon. The Supreme Court found the law to be unconstitutional because it violated the president's power to pardon. "When a pardon is full," the majority opinion said, "it releases the punishment, and blots out of existence the guilt" (Ex parte Garland, 71 U.S. [4 Wall.] 333, 18 L. Ed. 366 [1866]). The case restored Garland's right to practice law before the nation's high courts and established him as a nationally recognized constitutional lawyer. It also reestablished him as a political force in the South.


In 1867, Garland was elected to the U.S. Senate by the legislature of Arkansas, only to be denied a seat because Congress found that his state had not been sufficiently rehabilitated. For the next few years, he used his abilities to return his state to favor. By 1874, he was elected governor of the state; his administration is credited with bringing order out of the chaos that permeated Arkansas during the Reconstruction era.

In 1877, Garland was finally allowed to take his seat in the U.S. Senate. He was reelected in 1883 and became a ranking member of the Senate's Judiciary Committee.

Garland resigned his Senate seat on March 4, 1885, to accept the position of attorney general in President Cleveland's cabinet. As attorney general, he was frequently consulted on issues of CONSTITUTIONAL LAW. He was known as an advocate who insisted on the enforcement of constitutional freedoms for all citizens.

He also worked to earn the trust of those who condemned him for his Confederate service. As a U.S. senator and cabinet officer, Garland was wary of both individuals and institutions who sought to influence his opinions and actions. It is said that he steadfastly avoided society events and that he refused to read daily newspapers. Even so, he was once called back from a holiday by an angry President Cleveland to explain his ownership of stock in a company that would have been helped by a JUSTICE DEPARTMENT lawsuit. (The lawsuit was eventually withdrawn.)

In 1889 Garland returned to the PRACTICE OF LAW, and he maintained an active caseload until the end of his life. He also began to record his life's work for publication. His Experience in the Supreme Court of the United States and Federal Practice were published in 1898.

Having fought so hard to retain his right to appear before the nation's high courts, Garland's final hour was fitting: he died while arguing a case before the SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES on January 26, 1899.


Watkins, Beverly Nettles. 1985. Augustus Hill Garland, 1832–1899: Arkansas Lawyer to United States Attorney-General. Auburn, Ala.: Auburn Univ. Press.

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